Not so fast! Navigating your career as a "replacement"
By Braegan Abernethy
It is no secret that many librarians experience a high level of job satisfaction. We tend to stay in our positions for long periods of time and many retire after years of working for one company or institution. This is most likely one of the contributing factors for why it is so difficult for new MLS graduates to find professional jobs in the field. When they do, it is not uncommon for them to replace a well-loved, highly regarded librarian who was either in the position for many years or retired. Starting your first "real" job in this situation can be a daunting task. You may wonder if you will be able to meet the expectations set by the former librarian or if you can assert your role when your co-workers are watching you closely to see how you will measure up to their former colleague.
As someone who has navigated a year under such circumstances, I hope to offer a few words of advice to new professionals so that you can avoid some common mistakes and pitfalls. Whether you are still searching for a position, or beginning a new one, these helpful tips will get you through those first months, making it easier for you to find your own voice amidst the voices of the past.
The first clues into what type of environment you will be entering are often illuminated during the interview process or in the first few days of beginning a new position. If you are replacing someone who was in the position for a long time, and was well-loved by colleagues and the community alike, you will know within a short timeframe. Often other librarians will speak fondly of the individual, as well as recount stories about their time there or perhaps what they are doing now. Knowing that you are entering into this environment, and being prepared for it, is a key step to navigating your first year.
Make a good first impression.
This is self-explanatory. You know you already want to make a good first impression and ensuring this step will start you off on the right foot with your co-workers. Spend the initial month getting to know each person and what they do in their position. Showing attentiveness and interest in your colleagues will let them know that you are eager to work with them and that you are approachable. This may not keep them from comparing you to the former librarian, but it will shift their attention toward the gifts you can offer. You will also get a better idea of relationships among your co-workers. You may find that one colleague was closer to the former employee than another and this can be an indicator of how you interact with that colleague.
Never criticize the way things were done by the previous person. This does not mean you have to agree with the way everything is done, but your colleagues will be more receptive to your new ideas if you have a good attitude and respect the process from the start.
Give it some time.
Understand that the memories associated with the individual you replaced are not going to immediately disappear. A good rule of thumb is six months of employment before you can start to feel more comfortable asserting yourself in the position and making any changes. You should not question the way things are carried out at the beginning, especially if this is your first professional position. Get to know the process before you consider altering any policies, procedures, or key functions of the position that were set by the former employee you replaced. During this time, make sure to take notes about how things are working out and what changes you might want to try once you are ready to make yourself heard.
It is possible that the person you replaced had ineffective strategies for accomplishing tasks. However, you should remember they were loved for a reason and that reason could be the way they accomplished their work. You probably do not have all the right answers and if this is your first job as a librarian, you will want to learn as much as you can at the start. This way, when you begin trying out your ideas, you will have a better understanding of what does and does not work for you. Remain flexible from the start. Your colleagues will notice and be more receptive to your way of accomplishing things in the future.
Keep your voice.
While you want to help make the transition as smoothly as possible, you do not want to completely assimilate into the position so that later you will not have the opportunity to bring in new ideas. Make sure you are fulfilling your professional needs in other ways, like volunteering for an association committee, or blogging about your interests in the field. While it may be frustrating to continue to do things the way they have always been done, if you are actively participating in other aspects of the field, you will be able to cultivate your sense of work identity and be a better employee for it.
If, after about nine to twelve months, you are still having a difficult time making yourself heard with your colleagues, consider having a private conversation with your supervisor. Remind them that they hired you for the position and that, to be the best you can be, you need to be your own person, try out new things, and make your own mistakes. If you have a good boss, he/she will be receptive to your honesty and will also be your support when you start to take a more assertive role. Above all, remember to be yourself and have fun. The first few months in a professional position can be some of the most stressful and rewarding of your career. Understanding the environment you are entering will allow you to better navigate the waters of new librarianship.
Braegan Abernethy is the Public Services Librarian at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, TX. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.